Can the Jewish community be promoted to world as a brand?

It’s ironic that a such a Jewish profession has not been to the fore against Jew hate


E981T6 Orthodox Jews crossing the road in Stamford Hill, Hackney, London, UK

December 10, 2021 14:51

In his seminal work Crystalizing Public Opinion, on the new field of public relations, Edward Bernays wrote in December 1923, “This profession in a few years has developed from the status of circus agent stunts to… conduct of the world’s affairs.” 

Bernays was correct, as — along with input from luminaries like Walter Lippmann and Earnest Dichter — PR rapidly became beloved by companies, political parties, and a variety of other players.

Outside the profession — one that has attracted many Jews, with some like the Saatchi brothers achieving incredible success — Bernays’s fame is limited. But techniques employed nowadays to sway mass public opinion were either initiated or inspired by Bernays himself. His work has touched the lives of many. 

Effective PR requires creating a successful brand: products, people, groups, abstract ideas, all potential items for promoting. But that requirement also presents a conundrum, especially considering the strength of Jewish involvement in the industry (Edelman, APCO, and MWW to name several relevant firms). And the conundrum is simply this: PR expertise seems better leveraged by our adversaries rather than by the Jewish community itself. For determining a solution, a greater appreciation of Bernays’s work and uses it engendered, and of challenges faced for a Jewish-oriented PR, is critical.

PR, essentially, achieves its goal of selling a product — or anything else — by linking it to the subconscious desires of large numbers of people. Bernays’s focus was how to engage human perceptions to that end. 

It helped, too, that he could draw on the psychoanalytic ideas of his uncle, Sigmund Freud.  
Bernays advised major companies like General Electric and Proctor & Gamble in product promotion, politicians such as future US President Dwight Eisenhower on marketing themselves, and, famously, created a controversial campaign in the late 1920s to promote women smoking by re-branding cigarettes as “Torches of Freedom” — and thereby a feminist statement.

Manipulating the perceptions of the masses, while hardly benign for a business purpose, has dramatic ramifications when applied to politics. Indeed, the dark side of PR — or its counterpart, propaganda — was not only something that Bernays was aware of back in the 1920s but has since been utilised by dictators and their adherents. 

In Biography of an Idea, Bernays recollects Karl von Weigand, a foreign correspondent for Hearst Newspapers, telling him in 1933 of his recent meeting with Nazi propagandist, Joseph Goebbels. “Goebbels… was using my book Crystallizing Public Opinion as a basis for his destructive campaign against the Jews of Germany.,” he recalled. “This shocked me.”

Bernays’s work, it seems, contributed to a knowledge base accessible by those seeking to do evil — that Goebbels used Bernays’s ideas, the work of a Jew, is horrifyingly ironic.

And, troublingly, crowd persuasion techniques are still used today to dimmish how Jews are perceived in the public’s consciousness. 

Ideas underlying mass perceptual manipulation find expression in varied sinister forms.

There is ‘lawfare’, where the law is weaponised for a nefarious purpose. There is ‘Pallywood’, where images are manipulated by pro-Palestinians, Hollywood style, to portray a false narrative for PR point-scoring against Israel. 

Cognitive warfare methods are employed, not least by the far-right and Muslim extremists, to keep up a constant barrage of online memes of hook-nosed Jews as well as to proliferate fraudulent messages (Jews control the media, Israel commits genocide, etc).  Or there is the extreme leveraging of liberal ideologies, such as ‘wokeness’, at universities, where young Jews (often in some odd, perceived association with Israeli government policies) are suddenly guilty of being post-colonial oppressors of other ethnic or religious minorities. Added to that, millions spread hate as social media followers of contentious remarks by politicians or influencers. And all besides the occasional anti-Israel poster at bus stops.

Does any of this make sense? Of course it doesn’t; it’s not meant to. Because our enemies don’t care whether propaganda or PR-generated scenarios are found to be unsupportable or, ultimately, flagrant lies. The point is to keep up constant, diversified pressure that, like the incessant dripping of water on a stone, slowly erodes the image of Jews or Israel (or builds up the brand of Palestinian victimhood) amongst broader society. 

Against this onslaught from multiple fronts, debunking and educating is destined to have only limited impact. And even when a battle is won (such as Deborah Lipstadt’s victory in the libel case brought by Holocaust denier David Irving), the millennia-old war against Jew-hate has not. Indeed, to fight, though unavoidable, is to get sucked into the attacker’s game.  

Which begs the question: with PR highly effective, as Bernays established, why isn’t it leveraged more by Jews to combat antisemitism? To to take the battle to the enemy, rather than the other way round? 

Perhaps it’s inertia. After generations of being attacked, Jews don’t tend to jump at the first signs of trouble. There’s acclimation to hate: we learn to live with small offences perpetrated against us, propaganda-based or even physical. And people become inured to the effects of violence, stresses Craig Higson-Smith of the Centre for Victims of Torture. 

But as hate ramps up imperceptibly, we do not always realise when matters have gone too far, affecting the thinking of millions of people (manifesting, for example, in the current Pakistani wave of anti-Jewish rhetoric) and fail to act. Or, that is, act in the best way. Instead of fighting the PR war, efforts are focused on other means of combatting Jew-hate: pressuring social media companies, Holocaust education. 

As vital as these efforts are, they also represent ‘siloed’ thinking. Leading on from experiments by social psychologists such as Stanley Milgram, management science describes siloing as occurring when related groups begin acting independently (divisions, say, within a company), each developing their own special character and way of conducting themselves. Siloing, therefore, prevents integrated, multi-pronged responses. Hence, having good but separate intentions cannot underpin the strategic combatting of Jew-hate. 

Siloing is also a concern for PR in Israel: ‘hasbara’. It’s far more likely to be associated with making Israel appealing for tourists than improving the country’s name abroad. 

A reason for this disparity is that while Israelis may understand their existential threats, antisemitism is not something that many of them have personally experienced, unless they have spent time abroad. Inside and outside Israel, PR has a different language.  

One easy solution for a lack of effective PR is to blame the industry’s business heads for being more concerned with their corporate reputations than antisemitism. Plausible in some cases, perhaps. But irrespective of such biases, it’s ultimately PR professional capability that matters, and it is down to Jewry’s leadership to recruit the people with the right skills. 

In reality, many Jewish business heads make important contributions, devoting time and energy to community matters or (like the Saatchis) as philanthropists. That said, the ‘Chief Executive Officer’ role, at the head of senior management, is very attractive to pathological power-seekers, researchers Paola Rovelli and Camilla Curnis highlight. Communal ‘machers’, when also CEOs, might therefore be similarly disposed psychologically, with limited vision in fighting Jew-hate. Again, siloing may result. 

How Jews are unfavourably perceived is summed up, pithily, by author Dara Horn: ‘People love dead Jews. Living ones, not so much’. They are words reflecting a PR disaster. 

Against the diverse forms of current antisemitism, the lack of PR pushback should set alarm bells ringing amongst community leaders worldwide. Given the Jewish presence in the industry — and that has never been fully leveraged in this battle — those bells should ring even louder. 

The public image of Jews can be improved. And Edward Bernays’s pioneering work on crowd persuasion points the way. 

Alongside other efforts, the employment of PR resources by Jewry’s leaders is an overdue necessity.

Dr Jonathan Myers CPsychol is an organisational psychologist and director of Psychonomics.

December 10, 2021 14:51

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